Ben Wheatley is a filmmaker whose ambition has grown in proportion to his stature. This is a director who followed up the working-class chamber piece Down Terrace with his attempt to make a 21st Century Wicker Man in the shape of Kill List. And ever since that film put his name on the map, he’s been stretching his talents to the point where even his films you could describe as minor or tossed-off works in theory are in practice deceptively complex on either a thematic (A Field in England) or filmmaking level (Free Fire). So that makes Happy New Year, Colin Burstead a paradoxically noteworthy entry in Wheatley’s canon: a minor tossed-off work put together seemingly just because he had a weekend or two free, a big fancy manor house that was cheap to rent, and a murderer’s row of bubbling-under or just-plain-under-valued British actors and actresses who also had a weekend to kill and jumped at the call to work with one of British cinema’s great cult directors. This is less a “back-to-basics” movie and more a stopgap on Wheatley’s journeyman career.
Still, it’s a testament to Wheatley as both a writer and a director – important thing to note is that this is his first film since Kill List not to include partner-in-crime Amy Jump in any non-Producer capacity – that even his toss-offs are highly entertaining and extremely high-quality in the execution of their intentions. Colin Burstead‘s is to accurately recreate the absolute worst New Year’s Eve party you have ever had, via the (very) extended Burstead family. The titular Colin (Neil Maskell) has rented out a massive manor house in Dorset for the New Year’s to treat his Mum and Dad after a hard year for her, and such an occasion brings every single branch if the clan to the one building despite most of them being incapable of standing each other. The Bursteads are bastards of the highest order, the pronunciation of that surname indeed sounding exactly like “bastard” for some easy but effective laughs, all exceptionally ticked off by the four-hour drive and looking for any excuse to start shit. Colin’s a bossy self-centred knob, his Dad is a drunk and notorious for shaking down the other family members for cash to waste gambling, his Mum’s entitled, his sister (Hayley Squires) is a perpetual blame-passer, seemingly everybody has fucked each other at some point, and the black sheep brother of the family, David (Sam Riley), whom no-one has talked to in five years is turning up with his new German wife after skipping out on his ex-wife and children when busted for cheating.
Those are just a fraction of the characters populating this party, but everyone’s got a grievance – whether it be harassing former exes, being offended at the opulence of the rented house, the Disco People cancelling on the day of the event, being put in a bedroom with a ceiling that’s at head-level as some kind of subliminal “fuck off,” driving four hours to fucking Dorset – and they will all take turns voicing those grievances to anyone with earshot at every opportunity. Happy New Year is an utterly exhausting movie despite only running 95 minutes, but that’s completely by design. Wheatley cuts like an absolute maniac, jumping between dozens of characters in different locations and entirely different conversations practically every few seconds in order to effectively communicate the headache-inducing feeling of being stuck at the most spiteful of family gatherings. Characters upon characters upon even more characters keep turning up and their relationships to one-another soon become intentionally ill-defined and tenuous (one character has no good reason for being at the party since he’s not related to any member of the family and everybody there makes sure to call him out on this). Dialogue is contentious and snippy rather than any semblance of witty.
Family, as Wheatley is trying to say, is a sinkhole that, if they are treating you wrong, owe you nothing. And also maybe you’re a prick, too, especially if you’re related to the Bursteads in any capacity. The main problem, aside from the aforementioned fact that this is a low-stakes film that’s not trying particularly hard, comes from Wheatley being too damn good at making his cast utter bastards, so the film’s eventual turn into something approaching sentimentality, with an accompanying sober tone, in the last third rings hollow. Of course, maybe that’s the point given that it’s a film about a New Year’s party and what’s more hollow and tokenistic than the obligatory sentimentality shared between family members that otherwise hate each other’s guts at New Year’s? Much more effective is the film’s big blow-off at the midpoint between Colin and David, where Wheatley’s manic editing is halted, along with the party, to fixate on this one nuclear argument that catalyses the remainder of the evening, all in one-long take as every other member of the party slowly appearing in the background of these two releasing years of pent-up rage against each other.
Still, there’s one particular reason why Happy New Year, Colin Burstead was made and it becomes clear during the credits where the roll-call of our cast, all dancing in montage at the party, seamlessly transitions into the entire crew also getting in on the action. The artifice is stripped away, Wheatley himself busts some moves with the actors whose characters are still at the party, the camera crew film each other on their iPhones and one proper digital camera, and we fade out on everybody cheering and applauding one another. Colin Burstead is an excuse for Wheatley to cut loose, properly cut loose, and have some fun with no additional pressures or expectations. It’s a transitional movie to tide his cult over until whatever his next substantial move may be and, annoyingly, he’s so good at this that the result is still compulsively enjoyable despite that.